.....War Eagle, everybody. Time now for the Acid Reign report on the Arkansas game. My apologies for the lateness of this post. I attended the game, and was very late getting home. As with previous losses this year, Auburn failed to get the job done in many phases of the game, and fell short, 25-22 to the Arkansas Razorbacks. With the resurgence of Mississippi State, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, I think we can safely say that Auburn now ranks last in the SEC Western Division, and we're only ahead of cellar-dweller Tennessee, in the league overall.
.....Auburn will need a win over UT Martin, AND one more win besides that, to even become nominally bowl eligible. With road trips to Morgantown, Oxford, and Tuscaloosa; and a home appearance against Georgia, a win is going to be hard to find, especially the way the team is playing right now.
.....If there's any positives to be taken away from this disappointing game, the biggest one would be the reduction in stupid penalties. Our offensive line had no false starts, and no holding calls. That is a huge improvement. Tristan Davis brought excitement back to our return game. Clinton Durst, recovered from an illness a few weeks ago, punted magnificently. One fourth quarter punt actually brought a light rain down in the stadium!
......After just two practices, I think Coach Steve Ensminger called a slightly better game than Franklin did in the previous six. Most of Auburn's offensive woes boiled down to poor execution, rather than what play was called, this time. I'd give Ensminger a "bad call award," on only one play: a short side option call on third and long, that had no chance. Most Auburn fans expected to see more power running, this game, but that would have played into Arkansas' strength, their defensive line. We had chances all day to exploit very spotty coverage, but could not get the ball there, consistently.
.....While there was some improvement in strategy, a few things should have been exploited that weren't. Arkansas ran man coverage on the outside receivers, with a safety over top, cheating towards Rod Smith's side. On the opposite side, Montez Billings was in man coverage all day. We threw to him twice, once drawing a pass interference call, and the second good for a 13 yard completion. Billings was running around wide open all day, and Tommy Trott broke out deep on outs and corner routes, all by himself, numerous times. The quarterbacks, Burns and Todd both, seldom even looked that way.
.....Special teams showed a marked improvement. We had great punts, savvy fielding decisions, good returns by Tristan Davis and Mario Fannin, and we kicked off and covered very well. Only another medium range field goal miss marred the special teams performance. Wes Byrum was two out of three on the day, though.
.....Defensively, Auburn was decisively whipped up front for the first time all season. This in turn put pressure on the back seven, numerous cracks appeared, and veteran Casey Dick took advantage. Bobby Petrino immediately went to work on true freshman Neiko Thorpe, but Thorpe acquitted himself VERY well, eventually coming up with a near pick-six. The Arkansas attack then focused on Auburn's weakness all season, the short and intermediate crossing routes. Dick had time to throw, and Auburn linebackers and safeties were a step behind, all day. It's been a season-long problem. We don't have the depth to put a nickel back out there against the three receiver package, and the short to intermediate middle of the field is there for the taking. Arkansas took it.
Defensive Line: D+. SenDerrick Marks made a few good plays, but played a very limited number of snaps. Antonio Coleman was tenacious, but none of the tigers recorded a sack. Take away Marks and Coleman, and the rest of the unit recorded only six total tackles. Even on running plays, the line was blown backward two or three yards frequently. Telling stat: strong side ends Michael Goggins and Gabe McKenzie combined for zero tackles.
Linebackers: C-. The tiger backers continue to be strong against the run, suspect in coverage, with the exception of Merrill Johnson. They are being asked to deal with the slot receiver, and it's not working. Casey Dick used his tight ends and slot receivers to gash the linebackers in a death from a thousand cuts. There were missed tackles late on the shifty Michael Smith, but that's pretty much a result of being out of gas late, due to playing a ridiculous number of snaps. The linebackers still aren't being used to rush the passer, and yet we still allow the quarterback to scramble on third and long and run for first downs.
Secondary: C. Kudos to Neiko Thorpe on his first start. He was the best corner on the field. Arkansas tried to pick on him, and he was having none of it. Walt McFadden made a few mistakes, but was solid overall, and did a great job jumping routes a few times. He's GOT to hang onto the ball, though. Safeties were a different story. They are largely unable to adequately cover slot receivers and tight ends. Safeties were plagued by missed tackles, too. Auburn did use a 5th defensive back some in the second half, but it didn't help much. We were pretty good on the edges, but Mike McNeil, Zach Etheridge, Mike Slade, and D'Antoine Hood all seemed a step slow, and tentative, inside.
Punting: A+. You can't ask for any better than Clinton Durst's booming 48 yard average. No touchbacks, one pinned inside the five, and Arkansas got a grand total of 10 return yards on five punts. Durst kept us in the game, till the end.
Punt Returns: B. Chris Slaughter made good decisions, with the exception of nearly getting hit in the head by one punt he decided to let go. Slaughter had a nifty return on one right on the sideline, too. He was facing a monster punting effort by Razorback Jeremy Davis, but kept us from being pinned inside the 20.
Kick Returns: A. Auburn has finally fixed the vulnerability up front to the onsides kick. Blocking improved, and this allowed Tristan Davis to take one to the house! Even taking away the touchdown return, Davis averaged 21 yards per return, which is good. Mario Fannin was solid on his returns, too.
Kickoffs: A. Wes Byrum hit his kicks well, averaging nearly to the goal line, and we held Dennis Johnson under 20 yards per return. We've really improved in this area, this year. Probably the ONLY place we've improved...
Place Kicking: B-. Wes Byrum hit his extra points, and was two out of three on field goal attempts. Bonus points for the 45 yard field goal, points off on the 34 yard miss. It's better than last week, though. We can live with two out of three!
Offensive Line: A-. At times, we overpowered the Arkansas defensive line. The Auburn quarterbacks had plenty of time to throw. Sometimes, Arkansas would send more men than the line could block, but that's not a line failing. That's the scheme. There were no penalties on the line, this game, for the first time this season. If the line can continue to play at this level, we'll have a chance, if we can improve in other offensive areas.
Receivers: C-. We're really searching for answers, here. Blocking by these guys was poor, at best. Routes are being rounded off, guys aren't looking for the ball, and we can't put together a game without drops. I'd be tempted to fail this bunch, this game, but just when it looked darkest, Tommy Trott or Tim Hawthorne would come up with a huge catch to keep us in the game.
Running Backs: B. I left these guys out of my initial grades, with no proof reading of this post, initially. That's not hard to do, of course, with only 13 rushes for 48 yards by the backs. A lot of that was due to trying to run against 8 in the box. Still, I can't give an A to a bunch that averaged less than 4 yards per carry. Protection was good for the most part, with the notable exception of one time that Eric Smith crossed over and bumped Kodi Burns in the middle of a throw. The true freshman was trying, though, and playing hard. This offense is patently NOT FAIR to our running backs.
Quarterbacks: D-. Honestly, a spread offense will never work, if the quarterbacks can't get the ball to open receivers. This game featured a plethora of bad throws. Chris Todd continues to float balls to space, and Kodi Burns was wildly inaccurate, as well. Burns does have some ability to improvise with his feet, but as a passer, he leaves a lot to be desired. There was miscommunication, at times, particularly with Tim Hawthorne, as he failed to even look back toward the ball, on several throws. Hawthorne was WIDE open on the 4th quarter drive to the 5 yard line, and would have scored with a decent throw. From the 5, Burns threw all three of his passes out of bounds. No chance. On the last drive, Robert Dunn was wide open on the post, and Burns overthrew him by 15 yards. There are calls in the paper, and coaches discussing opening up the QB position for more competition, but I think that's a mistake. I think we need to name Burns as the starter, and get him as many reps throwing the ball as we can. It's the only way he's going to get better. We won't improve by throwing a very green Caudle or Trotter to the wolves.
.....In the end, it was a disappointment getting shut down by the worst defense in the league, and being picked apart by the likes of Casey Dick. There's really no way to sugar-coat it. Right now, Auburn and Tennessee are in a race to the bottom of the league, unless we can turn things around, team-wide. An off-week couldn't have come at a better time.
.....Questions about Tommy Tuberville's job security have come up in the wake of the disastrous events of the past eight days. It's very easy for the peanut gallery to boo lustily, and call for Tuberville's head. And there's no denying it, now. Tuberville has presided over a gradual decline, since the 2004 season. However, certain economic realities make getting rid of the head coach a nigh-impossibility, at this time.
.....The economy is in shambles, with a stock market crash every bit as big as the one in 1929. While it may not have registered to the average football fan, there are a lot of big companies, including ones controlled by the most prolific Auburn givers, that are in deep trouble. Bobby Lowder's Colonial Bank stock has plummeted down to about $2 a share, and the bank is in danger of failure. Jimmy Rane's wood sales have fallen to a near halt, as construction project after construction project continue to be canceled, or worse, in default with supplies unpaid for. Auburn University is ALREADY in deep proration, and funding/government revenue is expected to plummet even farther. Coach Tommy Tuberville has a six million dollar buyout. Where on earth would that money come from, in these dark times?
.....Like him or not, we're stuck with Tommy, unless he somehow would agree to waive the buyout. (Fat chance!) We've got a choice: get out and push, or fair-weather it over somewhere else. There's no room for booing. We're stuck with what we've got, and we've got to get behind the team and help them out. There's no money to throw at yet another quick fix. Only hard work, and time, will fix our current woes.
.....War Eagle! It's great to be an Auburn Tiger! Let's get behind our team, and cheer them on, no matter what! It'll get better. Our players know we've got their back. War Eagle, till I die!